book review


Fortified Castles
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Talonbooks (2014)
Read by Michael Roberson (mroberso[at]ucalgary[dot]ca)

Darkly humorous and mockingly pedantic, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Fortified Castles culminates a near-decade long project, taking shape out of his earlier book FAKE MATH. Again, he utilizes the Flarfist technique of Google sculpting, but he also tempers the smirk-inspiring ironies that occur when we mine the Internet and recontextualize what we find. The title, Fortified Castles, suggests the impervious home of the elite, securing abundant wealth and tyrannical power. Indeed, Fitzpatrick invokes this meaning as a reflection on our own political economy, but, as the pieces from the title section indicate, Fitzpatrick also considers lyric poems themselves as fortifications, celebrating and safeguarding the sincere human voice. In effect, Fitzpatrick explores sincerity for the 21st Century by “wind[ing] out a purity related to / the nineteenth century” and recasting voices out of the Internet’s selfied faces and mediated interfaces. The front and back covers consist of these “cute faces,” a “Crowd series” like a Where’s Waldo exercise, but sketches no less of isolated emotional states—surprise, sadness, disappointment, skepticism, and seriousness”—in these days of “gloomy economics.”

The book contains three sections: “21st Century Monsters,” “Fortified Castles,” and “Friendship is Magic.” The first section combines the personal “I,” the collective “We,” and the apostrophic “You.” The second collects a series of “I” statements. The third focuses on a series of “We” statements. The three sections operate paratactically, juxtaposing short sentiments, in which “phrases are epithets” related to politics, economics, history, architecture, film, and popular culture. “Really, I’m just embracing culture,” Fitzpatrick writes in the first section: “We make all this.” In other words, Fitzpatrick recasts personal and collective voices because the origins of our precarious sincerity arise not from a single “frame,” but more of a “Venn diagram.” We are individually and collectively responsible, as one epigram from the book states: “All our grievances are connected.”

The first section, composed of poems in couplets, suggests that our 21st Century monsters originate from “a womb of horror we paper-mâchéd using / the pages of our sister’s new issue of Sassy.” Our monsters are not zombies, werewolves, and vampire, but terrorists, cancers, and gun-toting idiots. The second section, the title piece, offers poems with three quatrains each, breaking up the fourteen lines of a sonnet—a form at once characteristically personal and carefully fashioned. These poems proceed from personal statements such as “I Want to Enjoy Life” and “I Want to Break Things”—statements that build a kind of “striking and radical portrait,” the irony of which registers in the first line: “My story is truly personal.” In the last section, composed again of couplets, Fitzpatrick riffs from line to line, employing rhetorical devices that increase a hypotactic flow. He keeps the pace short and anxious—a “gush from the heart”—and many questions, some bleak and some optimistic, riddle this section. Near the end, Fitzpatrick asks “How might we connect our cuffs?”—recognizing the “terrifying agency” of sincerity—of meaning what we say—once we admit that we share grievances and complicities.

REVIEW: Cinema of the Present

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House
Read by Jessi MacEachern

Inserting herself into the tradition of Canadian long poems (Kroetsch, Marlatt, Davey, Ondaatje, etc.), Lisa Robertson deploys her uniquely feminist line of cultural and philosophical query within the sharp, evocative lines of her newest book, Cinema of the Present (2014).

Readers familiar with Robertson will recognize the poem’s tangible concerns with the body, thrift store fabrics, and footfalls from Occasional Work and Seven Walks (2003), Magenta Soul Whip (2009) and R’s Boat (2010). A prolific writer, she extends her own tradition through these echoes while simultaneously altering the meaning these indexed items can be said to hold. (This book features, not for the first time, an index prepared for Robertson by Pascal Poyet.) Part of what Robertson’s project teaches its reader is the inexhaustible effect of the present, the expansive moment in which the writing and reading occurs. To put it in the vocabulary of cinema, the line of figure changes frame to frame.

Robertson’s poetic lines are irreparably and beautifully altered from moment to moment, page to page. Take, for instance, the figure of “A concomitant gate” (5) which graces the opening of the poem and, according to its descriptor, naturally transforms according to what follows so that a variety of gates are present on the following pages: “A gate made of bejewelled barrettes, artificial peaches, a rotary phone” (6), “A gate made of gas pumps” (7), “A gate made of Perspex” (8), “A gate of hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes” (9). The repetition alters suddenly; the scene shifts. The preposition (“A”) remains but the object (“gate”) changes to girl, graph, jay, etc.

What is most alluring about Robertson’s poetry is this effect of uncanny resonance. Her best lines are capable of sending the reader into an entirely constructed nostalgia, a tonal technique that is at once familiar and unsettling. The 800 frames, or lines, of memory progress like strips of film according to the tri-fold and ever-changing desire of the writer, speaker and reader. Whether the projection takes place in a library, cafe, or classroom, the city and the body intervene with the flickering image in order to make the experience severely intimate. When Robertson writes, “You need a hat against anger” (84), the reader is reminded of a mother’s advice upon going out into the cold, though the prescription is less practical than this. Emotion takes precedence in the writing. Emotion is the stubborn and strange partner of intellect and a necessary ingredient for interpretation of this speaker’s surroundings. Closely scrutinized emotion hardens into a multi-refractory substance that exists in changed duration for each frame: “You were annotating the idea of a long elastic present that could include violence and passivity and patience as well as cities, as would a crystal of quartz” (85).

Robertson’s “cinematic present,” the rapid and necessary change permitted by the metaphor of film, is the conceptual constraint of project. The result is an unfalteringly close and radical theorization of the (feminist) subject’s place in time.

REVIEW: Universal Bureau of Copyrights

Universal Bureau of Copyrights
Bertrand Laverdure, trans. Oana Avasilichioaei
BookThug (2014)
Read by Klara du Plessis

The elegant English translation of Bertrand Laverdure’s novel, Universal Bureau of Copyrights (Oana Avasilichioaei, 2014), pivots on the contradictory premise that when imagination becomes reality and wild thoughts materialize, free will is lost rather than celebrated.

In an alternate world, “every word, every material, every object, every letter, every spark of life, every idea, every character, has their copyright” (103), implying that “you have no ownership over what constitutes you” (105). You imagine something and it happens to you; a stranger imagines something and it happens to you. As the term “Copyright” suggests, both in the original and the translation, the legal authority for one party to reproduce is simultaneously the prohibition for another party to do the same. Creativity is institutionalized to be a safe place, yet reveals itself as a house of horrors.

In the novel’s metafictional reality, the unnamed protagonist is subjected to imagination. In a picaresque sequence of events, he is systematically maimed, losing a leg, first his little fingers, then both his arms; his clothes disappear and, in a gesture of lost self-worth, he considers wearing a random sweater drenched in vomit. Metamorphosing through subtraction, loss of physicality becomes symbolic of his establishment as a character rather than as an independent human being. He is passively written, rather than writing himself. Being written means submitting to the whim of the writer, to imagination, to a future already copyrighted for him. He does not necessarily benefit from the writing, victimized by haphazard brutality: “I’m sure the main character’s stump should have grown back […] but you can bet your ass there’s some negligence in the writing of this scene” (45).

Injury is consistently positioned as the concluding act of a chapter. If violence is the final thought in a world where imagination reigns and the character is conscious of the fact that he is being created by the writer, then Laverdure is passing harsh judgment on the creative process. In a peek “behind the scenes of the book” (64), imagination is posited as disease.

Metafiction exposes the author’s craft and attempts to destabilize the power dynamic in favour of writer over written. Comically, a character costumed as Jokey Smurf recurs throughout as prankster and terrorist, sadistically offering an explosive gift box to unwitting targets. His character simultaneously stands for free will and fate, spontaneity and premeditation, independent individual and author’s pawn. Considering the Smurf costume, the protagonist asks: “Who takes the time to don the garb of Jokey Smurf? On the contrary, one would have thought Smurfs to be empty entities, remotely operated and inflated by a deus ex machina author” (64). And in the world of Universal Bureau of Copyrights he is correct. Jokey isn’t a one-dimensional addition to the novel. Rather, by wearing a costume, a character submits to playing a part in the narrative Laverdure creates while Laverdure questions the possibility of equality between author and character.

REVIEW: The Quiet

The Quiet
Anne-Marie Turza
Anansi (2014)
Read by Rachel Wyatt

In her debut collection of poetry, Anne-Marie Turza ranges in scope from the microscopic to the lengths of the CN tower that could span into the depths of Russia’s lake Baikal. Despite the collection’s title, she offers a clutter of ideas, images and connections that are anything but quiet.

Structurally, the collection is framed by three sections entitled “The Quiet”. These sections are made up of untitled poems that pay minute attention to the world. Several of these ask “And its sound?”; others describe the delicate anatomy of insects or even smaller, microscopic scaled creatures. The tone in these poems shifts from the found encyclopedic text in i:ii, describing the Thin-Legged Wolf Spider to the languorous metaphors of the tardigrade “lumber[ing] slowly … [m]outh circular and open, curiously like a Christmas orange” (i:v). Many poems in these sections ask questions without antecedents, each new poem obscuring the object of the questioning further, its sound “[a]s in the toothed whale” (i:i), pointed and “A nerve ran through it, like the long nerve in the eyetooth of a cat” (ii:ii), its “bright carapace” an “antennae of dissolving bone” (iii:vi).

The collection refuses to reveal its structural principles. Poems from “The Quiet” range from the focus and quiet of “A man is sewing button holes into the wings of moths” (i:vii), to the feverish pitch of ii:i where the speakers “lived in that quiet, above megrims in second story windows, painted our mouths with ketchup, our eyelids with sweet relish, wore singlets made from the dyed hair of miniature horses.”

The intervening sections have similar range, from the moment of suspended quiet that describes the light streaming through a window in “Levin Hunting”, to the carefully weighed, short lines describing the microflora of an eyelash in “Animalcules”, to the frenetic shifting focus of “Black Cap Winter” (which describes lobsters, sunken ships, earthworms lost in the progress of glaciers to coal dust), and then back to the rolling gait of “Dear God – And When I Say God, I Mean The God” that elegantly dances through a snail “shitting on its own head,” to the “god of the conditional,” the “thick-kneed god,” to the “god who wears shoes big, who shambles—“. Sentences with burgeoning commas trip up the pace, or verbs that can be tied to more than one noun add a timorous ambiguity:

Feelers in lengthy syncopation, eyes

Deep occupied manholes.
Here one can live at any dark system’s edge—

Underwater canyons, sewers, storms, stars—
Know little about, and die of it, being old.
” (Black Cap Winter)

Turza’s collection plucks several themes like the strings of a lute: themes of god or gods, dust and its quiet, insects and the character Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but refuses to resolve itself to any finite relationship between them, resting instead on their dissonance. Its poems hold up the beauty of the unbeautiful and imperfect, make the familiar unfamiliar, and shift through almost as many voices as there are poems.

REVIEW and INTERVIEW: The Things I Heard About You

The Things I Heard About You
by Alex Leslie
Nightwood (2014)
Read by Fazeela Jiwa

The poems of The Things I Heard About You (2014)are arranged into four-part sequences that begin with an original and then shed words three times until only one phrase or one word remains. The constant presence of “smaller” at the end of each version continuously dares the author to distil words, and is influenced by John Thompson’s claim in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.”

It would seem fitting to describe these iterations as Russian dolls, except that analogy implies that each version looks like the original, only smaller. Instead, Leslie’s distillation and rearrangement of the original words opens new worlds within the same story. Subsequent versions may be smaller but despite this, the startling re-combinations of words and phrases explore the creases of the first iteration.

“Pacific phone book” for example: the first piece in this sequence tells the story of a narrator flipping through a moist phone book to find someone they used to know, a cancer survivor who “decided to be positive and therefore became humourless.” The mood is heavy with some resentment at a friend who “fell away.” As the words shed, empathy emerges “I open the story at cancer… you left to maul wet loss. Therefore, place fell away.” The last and smallest version simplifies the narrator’s emotions; at the root of resentment there is only a stark desire for simple intimacy: “Dreamed you crossed and washed me.” In all of the poems in this book, the smaller lines delve into the deeper context of the story, and as Larissa Lai observes on the back cover, they often express the opposite of what is first presented. This technique highlights how much of any experience is always unsaid, but also how much can be said with just a few winnowed words.

The structure lends itself well to Leslie’s nostalgic content; many of the poems present memories or dreams that are similarly layered in structure. The narrator of “Everyone who sits up here is gay” analyzes graffiti on a wall while cutting class and smoking in the sun. The smaller versions then reveal thoughts on lust and gender, the more internal aspects of this teenage memory. Similarly, “Dump stories” remembers an enigmatic figure from the narrator’s past, “Dumpster diver, scrounger, hoarder, fairy-tale monster, the things I heard about you.” Shrinking, the words people used to describe the man fall away and the narrator questions, “how did you become scrap.” It ends with only one evocative image, “Thumbprint,” a detail that highlights the man’s humanity and identity amidst the assumptions that others heave upon him.

I read The Things I Heard About You differently each time, inspired to make my own reconfigurations of the words, like reading smallest to biggest or reading all the smallest versions together as one poem. No matter how readers engage with it, Leslie’s innovative form and imagery promises to stir.

Fazeela Jiwa had the opportunity to interview Alex Leslie about The Things I Heard About You. Here is what they discussed:

1) You say that your technique in The Things I Heard About You was influenced by John Thompson’s line in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.” So, how small can a poem be? Is the one-word poem in the last version of “Dump stories” as small as it seems?

The pieces operate differently in relation to size/length. I was trying to work with the idea of distillation rather than erasure — so smaller can be bigger, in the sense that the piece’s root or core becomes more exposed. In some pieces, the words become increasingly abstract or oblique. For me, with my background as a fiction writer, there is this huge legacy of the idea of the “le mot juste,” which translates as “the right word” and comes from Flaubert — this idea that there is a right way to word things that will perfectly capture something. This is an idea and process I’ve struggled with in my writing, right from my first published stories. I wrote these pieces in part in resistance to that but, as things tend to go, really this
project drew me into exploring this even more, and now I’m working on a book of stories again. So it goes. The piece that concludes with the word “Thumbprint” is for me about the irreducibility of any human
being. The piece struggles with rumours, hearsay, shattered descriptions of a community outcast, and concludes with “Thumbprint.” The piece expands and contracts and finally expands to all the connotations and meanings held within one word.

2) What was the impetus to shed words and make your poem smaller? How did you choose which words to shed?

It’s interesting because I read a review in which the reviewer speculated that I purposefully made the first piece ornate in order to break it down — this reading had never occurred to me! In reality the first piece was written to evoke a particular photograph. These are all photographs I’ve taken over the last few years that contain stories for me. Of course while writing the initial pieces I knew that I would be going through this process, but I focused on bringing in all the associations, thoughts and colours I could, and there was no forward planning while writing each initial piece. I then went through a strict procedure where I wrote each piece in the sequence from the first piece. I say “strict” because in the first part of the process the words had to be in the same order as they were in the first piece — I conceived of this in a much more strict way than the end product…so it goes. These pieces sat around for a while and when I returned to them I edited for sound, rhythm and texture. I shifted words throughout the sections and played with punctuation to place sound-emphasis on different words (we read meaning through the sound in sentences…in this sense all written sentences are dialogue). This was an intuitive method and I can’t pin down a way I made “decisions” — many pieces surprised me in where they went. A few pieces told me where they needed to go right away. Some pieces were abandoned completely because the process didn’t work, even if the initial
section worked. When you edit your own work you really don’t know what you’ll find.

3) I visited the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last month and learned that he designed a program that would take his sentences, identify its parts, and then reconfigure them into new phrases and images. He described it as a way of reaching into his subconscious and having access to the wild images of the dreamscape “without doing the boring work of falling asleep.” I found your technique reminiscent of that – how did you react to the imagery that rearranging your own words created?

Yes, absolutely, I agree with this. I think that this is the greatest thing I’ve learned from experimental and process-based writing — you experience that you are absolutely not an individual separate from the generative processes of language. Your language will surprise you and teach you how you see and think. I don’t agree with Bowie’s statement about accessing the dreamscape because I believe that we are always dreaming on some level. Description is entirely subjective, emotional, contextual. Writing for me is a way to separate out the layers of experience and say “look at this!” I include memory — all forms of
memory, including sense memory — in this. When you take your own words as “given” and you work with them, you find out you are composed of many different things. And it never ends.

4) The graphics associated with the sequences are striking, how do they fit with your words?

Full credit goes to Carleton Wilson. He has done a lot of work with my publisher Nightwood and with my editor Silas White. Because my book is part of the experimental poetry imprint blewointment and so Silas asked Carleton to create images to accompany my pieces. I had the opportunity to work with Carleton on these images late in the process of creation and we collaborated on the concept of the cover, which I love. Everybody should check out Carleton’s website and hire him to design their books, he is just the best:

5) The ocean is a recurring symbol in your work, a seemingly ambivalent one that is alternatingly alienating and comforting in its power. Why is the ocean important in your writing?

I now make the joke when I introduce my work that the saltwater has soaked into my brain. I grew up on the West coast, have lived on the coast (literally within walking/biking distance) my entire life. How does that not become a part of you? I am very struck when I travel somewhere landlocked that the ocean is not there, to my left, all the time. It’s simply a core part of my consciousness. It comes up in my writing all the time. Last year I biked several times a week to university and my route crossed two arms of the Fraser River and
followed the Pacific ocean all the way to university. I got to know the fog, tides and weather systems very well. I have probably breathed more rain than air in my life. I do believe in the power of the ocean and it is a force that I return to again and again in my writing. I try not to control my writing too much — if I’m going somewhere, I let myself go there. I go to the ocean again and again.

This summer I was very honoured to be invited to respond to the work of Chief Dan George by the Tsleil Waututh for their Salish Sea festival, which protests oil pipeline development in their territory and works to protect their waters. I wrote a poem for the festival and was glad to be invited by them to go on a canoe trip across the water to where the Kinder Morgan plant is and witness a ceremony. This experience really impressed on me the centrality of water in my life — also a good reminder that the land here is unceded, meaning that there were never any treaties or negotiations with the original Indigenous people here. You can read my poem from that event here:

6) As a reader, I felt inspired by your reconfiguring and experimented with rearranging the sequences of your poems. I read some of them backwards, and I read all of the smallest together in their own sequence. What do you think of my experimentation?

Oh, I’d never thought of reading them laterally according to position in the sequence. I need to go try to do that. I have heard the suggestion of reading them from smallest to largest, just to see how that would be, but audiences seem to enjoy listening for the changes from biggest to smallest. I love the idea of reading them laterally. I’d be curious to hear about the results of that experiment. It’s interesting, because when a writer from the Rusty Toque spoke to me, she emphasized that the pieces really spoke to her as a sequence overall, that the book had an arc and emotional journey for her. I think that the fragmented and oblique nature of the work invites these cross-readings and more “wholistic” readings if I can use that term —
the pieces are presented as speaking to each other and so readers feel invited to join into the process and continue the process of meaning-making, which I love. You can read the Rusty Toque interview here:

REVIEW: Beginning with the Mirror

Beginning with the Mirror
by Peter Dubé,
Lethe Press (2014)
Reviewed by Su J. Sokol

Peter Dubé’s latest book is a layered, nuanced work that engages both the intellect and the heart. Beginning with the Mirror consists of ten short pieces, but calling the book a collection of stories seems too haphazard a way of describing how these interstitial tales of love and desire fit together. Although the book is not linear, there is a definite progression from the first piece to the last, a progression that is perceived before it is fully comprehended.

The title of each piece, with the exception of “Funnel Cloud,” is a single word. There is a simple beauty to this, although the words themselves—Blazon, Egress, Corvidae—hint at depth and complexity. Dubé delivers this promise of depth by weaving together layers of meaning within the stories. For instance, “Blazon” speaks of the destructive power of unfulfilled desire, with fire serving as metaphor. At the same time, “Blazon” is a story about metaphor. The challenge is to see how these concepts connect. Moreover, each story reveals additional complexities to Dubé’s vision, forcing earlier ideas to realign themselves to a new whole. Reading this book is much like watching a visual artist add layers of paint, transforming not only the finished piece, but what you thought you’d glimpsed earlier.

Fortunately, this is not a painful process with Dubé’s beautiful prose to enjoy:
The absence of the sound of metal is everywhere. (“Foliage”)
A tall palm takes all of his light, draping him in feathering shadow. (“Echo”);
I watched as my fear raced to meet my fascination.(“Corvidae”)

Dubé acquaints us with pain as well as beauty. “Needle,” the most gritty and realistic of the stories, communicates an anguish mixed with regret that stays with the reader long after the tale is told. Yet, it also makes us feel more alive. In “Corvidae,” one of my favourites, longing and sadness is tempered with the possibility of transcendence. “Egress,” which recalls a key scene in Dubé’s novel,The City’s Gates, is another favourite for its social action theme. It describes a discouraging social reality while pointing to the “egress”—the title thus aiding with interpretation.

Beginning with the Mirror may not be for everyone, particularly those who prefer simple narrative plots. Even such readers may find it hard to resist these stories of desire and crossing between worlds, ideas that are communicated not just in the plot but in the lusciousness of the language, the loving detail with which the scenes are drawn, and the surrealism that flashes across the pages.

Dubé’s book is also about life. It begins with tales of fire, water, air, and earth then laces these stories with concepts of nature, human creation and existential truth, the physical and the transcendent, life and death. Through all this, Dubé’s characters are faced with choices, the same choices we all face: Whether and how much to feel, to love, to communicate. Whether to act and in so doing, to live.

REVIEW: Where Bears Roam The Streets

Where Bears Roam the Streets
by Jeff Parker
Harper Collins (2014)
Reviewed by Lizy Mostowski

Jeff Parker captures post-Soviet, pre-Sochi Olympics Russia through the lens of both an outsider and an insider—he is not Russian-born—Parker was raised in Florida—yet he isn’t the Western journalist who coined the hashtag #sochiproblems either. He began travelling with an international writing program—Summer Literary Seminars, founded by Concordia University Professor Mikhail Iossel—to St. Petersburg in 1998, and has had a taste for Russia ever since.

This book is the fruit of ten summers’ (and a couple of winters’) worth of travelling through Russia with his friend Igor, Where Bears Roam the Streets shows two perspectives on the same experience: Parker’s own American perspective as well as Igor’s Russian perspective. Parker’s lens transitions from that of an investigative reporter, to that of a tourist, and finally to that of a writer, all while giving readers simultaneously a tour of and a guide to Russia that is both humourous and practical, allowing for lighthearted yet weighty insights, for example the difference between how Russians and Americans use the metric system: “Russian bartenders measure alcohol in the units North Americans reserve for cocaine and saturated fat.”

In writing Where the Bears Roam the Streets: A Russia Journal, Jeff Parker himself inhabits a characteristic that he recognizes in his Russian friends—what he calls “the Duality”, or put simply, the tendency to contradict yourself—he is an insider to Western readers and an outsider to Russian readers—his take of Russia is at once honest and critical. First Parker calls Bruce Hopper’s accusation that Russians are “a contradictory animal” politically incorrect and soon echoes the idea: “Russians are known simultaneously for their great capacity for hospitality to strangers and for hard-core xenophobia.” His narrative voice is always aware of itself, unafraid to reveal the spaces where he is unable to guide his reader. “Much of this performance is either beyond my Russian or untranslatable”, Parker admits when transcribing a conversation. This model of duality is used to discuss various aspects of Russian society: “I do not know any poetry by heart, and I am an English professor,” the beauty of a Russian education is allowed to shine through when Parker notes that you cannot expect an American farmer to know Whitman, but can expect a Russian farmer to pick his favourite among the Russian greats. Though memorization is not acclaimed as the best method to teach literature, Parker still allows the old model a nostalgic place in his commentary. Concurrently, Parker critiques American society and culture while drawing a realistic portrait of contemporary Russia. Both his perspective and his character as it appears throughout the book have a certain contradictory quality: he admits to being perceived as a spy to some and to others a celebrity while travelling through Russia.

Though he is not perfectly fluent in Russian, he is mistaken for a Russian by fellow Americans visiting St. Petersburg for Summer Literary Seminars: “You hardly have an accent,” they told him. Parker admits to never having mastered the Russian slang called mat, however is proud of master speaking English with a Russian accent. Whether through meticulous research, experience, or personal knowledge, Parker is a perfect translator from his Russian experience to written English, explaining linguistic nuances in Russian language as well as he explains the politics of cultural rituals in Russia. He explains krolik is “domesticated rabbit, not hare” and diminutive forms mean not only that we are friends, but “My fish are cuter.” The physical and psychological benefits of the Russian banya—the steam room, the birch beatings, the cold bath—are recognized as well as humourized in the book, “There were Russian jokes during World War II suggesting that if they could only get Hitler into a banya, they could end the war.”

Russia is portrayed in a light that is neither condemning nor valourizing—the encounters with the types of cops my parents remember from Communist Poland, the beauty of the Eastern European belief that vodka cures everything, and the shadow that is domestic abuse are all equally explored with careful attention. Parker is able to smoothly transition between serious and whimsical aspects of contemporary Russian culture. His comments on Russian society are both overt and subtle: “The problem is people have nothing to live for,” he writes in his examination of Russian “democracy”. “I saw a theatre-beggar at the coat check retrieving a mink coat,” Parker notes of a beggar that spent his earnings on a theatre ticket. “Russians confuse power with sexiness,” Parker cleverly states, noting that the post-Soviet, pre-Putin desire to escape that resulted in the stereotype of the Russian mail-order bride diminished after Putin’s election along with the desire to escape Russia. This is the book that should have been (if only it came out a year earlier) on the required reading list of every Western reporter who travelled to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the reporters who tweeted #sochiproblems had read of Igor’s experience staying in a hotel in Britain, I doubt that we would have so many photos of Russian bathrooms with sarcastic taglines archived on the internet. Igor’s reaction to Western luxury would allow Westerners a new perspective: “‘Everyday, we were sitting and wondering why she is giving us every day two rolls,’ Igor says. ‘Like we were shitting all day.’” The culture shock that Igor experienced is well conveyed by Parker: “Did the cleaning lady imagine Russian men like them went through two rolls of toilet paper per day? Was it some kind of insult?” Through Igor and his experience, Parker is able to tell Russia’s truth that some of these journalists were not able to perforate. Cultural symbols and phenomena that seem familiar to a Western audience are translated to the reader to a Russian perspective: “McDonald’s is popular here because of its bathroom,” Igor tells Parker, “People all over the city go there to pee.” Where the Bears Roam the Streets allows Western readers to read Russian society through a lens that is neither entirely foreign nor entirely familiar to them, allowing them to experience Russia without the pretention of Western expectation.

REVIEW: The Geography of Pluto

The Geography of Pluto
By Christopher DiRaddo
Cormorant Books (2014)

Read by Su J. Sokol

The surface terrain of The Geography of Pluto, Christopher DiRaddo’s debut novel, is a deceptively familiar landscape. Will, the main character, is gay, Italian, a geography teacher, and the only son of a devoted mother. He seeks connection in his life, suffers loss, and gains understanding of himself and the world. We even have a kind of “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy” plot device.

Yet, despite these ordinary trappings, this is not your run-of-the mill novel. It’s the story of a gay man growing into middle adulthood in a very particular place — Montréal. DiRaddo writes about Montréal as though it were a character in the story, bringing it to life even for readers who aren’t familiar with the bars and stretches of sidewalk that his characters inhabit. The tone DiRaddo evokes is unmistakably Canadian, with long, cold winters and drawn-out moments of darkness and light. Even Will’s pet peeve — people who air their dirty laundry in public places — exhibits a very Canadian sensibility.

What is also noteworthy about this novel is its versatility. It can be categorized as an urban story, as gay literature, or as a mainstream Canadian novel, equally comfortable on any of those shelves. This is a neat trick. In this niche world, it’s easy for books that try to be many things to end up falling through the cracks. Somehow, DiRaddo has not only managed to avoid this hazard, he’s done the opposite by creating bridges. Because of this,The Geography of Pluto has helped to bring gay literature into the Canadian mainstream. It is able to do this precisely because the story is written in an ordinary literary style about an ordinary person facing challenges that are also, by and large, ordinary, no less so for the fact that they are difficult and poignant. At the same time, DiRaddo has succeeded in mainstreaming this story without sanitizing or heteronormalizing his characters’ lives.

The title of DiRaddo’s book — The Geography of Pluto — brings to mind that popular-culture bestseller of the nineties: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Are gay men from Pluto or are we simply “all one race, the human race”, as the popular aphorism would have it? The beauty of this book is that it helps to answer that question in all its complexity with a resounding “both.” Will’s story is universal, and the ordinary way in which it is told emphasizes this universality while making it accessible to a large constellation of readers. Yet, the content of Will’s story diverges from the usual narratives found in the majority literary culture. For some, this will be a sneak peak into an alien world; for others it will feel like their story has finally been brought from the margins to the centre. In the end, whether the reader is familiar with the geography of Pluto or whether this is a first visit to foreign territory, it will still be a voyage well worth taking.

REVIEW: The Uncertainty Principle

The Uncertainty Principle
by Roxanna Bennett
Tightrope Books (2014)

Read by Julie Mannell

Roxanna Bennett’s debut poetry collection The Uncertainty Principle is a solitary basket of trinkets and memory souvenirs exposed through solemn confession—inviting you to participate in its unrealized possibilities, the magnetic imagining of a mystical mind.

The confession and fantasy starts with a poem that pays homage to the father of confession, Leonard Cohen, but the voice is not Cohen’s; this is not Cohen’s longing. There are portraits of men and it is not difficult to perceive the voice behind the words sitting alone at a bar, looking at strangers, and constructing elaborate fables of potential romance, adventure, and some kind of actualization of the wholeness the voice so unabashedly yearns for.

While the poems possess both whimsy in their fantasy and frank bodily imagery of gorged aortas, fresh organs, and shocks of skin, it rests in the emotional displacement of the present. I don’t believe this is an accident on the part of the writer, it gives the text room to conceive and reflect, that intense space of breathing, turning inwards in awareness of that breath and how it has rhythmically kept time in conjunction with past feelings, both positive and negative, while allowing for a possible reconstitution of breath in the many futures yet unrealized.

Some of the poems are cautionary. The voice does not want to present fantasy and carelessly throw you to the wind. It wants you to be aware, ever aware, of the dangers of possibility, while it urges you to move forward through the reflections and into the explosive and often catastrophic maw of time.

This is the voice of a person who does not just examine ash or reflect on its divination, but, with childlike curiosity, “slips from slaughter’s nest [and] follow[s] the trail of ashes” (21) to an elusive endpoint she simply calls “home” (21). When the narrative occupies the body of “every cum covered porn star you’ve ever jacked off to,” (25) she is still looking beyond the present into future possibilities which roar forward through adamant instruction and unabashed demand: “subdue your hunger, eat the rage you carry” (27).

This is as much a book of desire as it is a tale of warning. Perhaps the sentiments that carry throughout each poem are best articulated in the opening line to the poem Inamorata: “If it’s love you covet don’t forget what you paid for” (29).

Take Bennett’s box of people, in it there is a universality to the specificity, bad boyfriends and good boyfriends, mental and physical illness, mothers and fathers—both dead and alive, both good and bad—grandparents, births of children, children growing, pets…also both dead and alive. Take the box of souvenirs and sympathize with the millions of homes the voice enters, occupies, and leaves. Then sit at a bar, order yourself a drink, talk to a stranger, and, cautiously, hope for the best.

REVIEW: Chris Eaton, a Biography

Chris Eaton, a Biography
By Chris Eaton
BookThug (2013)

Read by Caitlin Stall-Paquet

Chris Eaton, a Biography, is not that. Just below this title appear the words ‘A Novel by Chris Eaton’. This juxtaposition reveals much about the book right off the bat. Its blurb divulges some of the inspiration for the book: that is, mainly, the question “What happens when we Google ourselves?” Chris Eaton, a Biography is an attempt to answer this question through an endless-seeming thread of stories and pieces of lives. It might be a biography after all. The thing is just that it’s fiction.

On the first page, a vague narrator tells us about one Chris Eaton amongst many others, about his family and its men that went to war “And oh, how they died!” That sentence not only hooks from the start, but also sums up the book. We are invited to episodically follow various ridiculously extravagant and eccentric people or boring, vain and selfish ones throughout their lives that, big surprise, end in death. But that exclamation point also forewarns as to the incredible humour with which this often sincere and painful book is carried out.

As might be expected due to its vague subject matter, this novel is a cornucopia of anecdotes, adventures, comedies, tragedies and facts both true and completely made up, but all very real within the world of the story. Eaton has an amazing way of telling the reader that he is lying by weaving myth into reality quite obviously and successfully. One of the characters who has lived underground his whole life tells us that he does not know if he is under “New York, or Arkansas, or Colorado, or Atlantis” or even is this dimension. Eaton places mythical mysteries along the same lines as things (and locations) we accept as self-evident truths, throwing his hoard of Chris Eatons into the mix, while retaining perfect tone and wit. The result is an addictive, often insane and incredibly creative version of the world that could very well be true, but for some reason isn’t quite.

There is much about Eaton’s writing that ties its ambitions to the great authors who have had fascinations with “everything,” be it David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov or Roberto Bolaño. There is a similar passion and obsessiveness in Eaton’s writing. Regrettably, however, Eaton tends to lapse out of the narration’s thread and too explicitly defines the story’s themes through direct address. Eaton needs to trust his reader in these moments rather than directing a giant figure to “the point.” It’s a shame, but only a small one because even at those moments, the writing is smart and engaging and makes the reader want to search for the clues that tie all of the threads together. Ultimately, Eaton’s book has probably sent many readers back to the great question engine of our era, the true hub of fact and fiction: Google.